“When all is said and done,
something sticks in the Barbarians.”
We need a practical education, an education that will be valid in the unforeseen and unforeseeable future. There are many possible forms, but all must include mathematics and Latin. Of the 100 most commonly used words in English, only 10 or so come from Latin. Of all English words, however—over a million in the latest dictionaries—more than half are of Latin origin and those of Greek origin take up most of what remains. For a job where you need to use only the most commonly used words, Latin is unnecessary. Those who are planning on careers in law, medicine, or the other professions will find it useful.
How did such a situation, at first sight a rather unnatural one, come about? It is a story of some interest, one I like to call the Latin Invasions of English. The island of England, you see, was Britain and spoke Latin long before it ever heard the voices of the Germanic ancestors of modern English. Julius Caesar tried to invade Britain twice in the 50’s of the last century B.C. The account in his Commentaries is so brilliant that one hardly notices that two invasions followed by two retreats represent defeat, not victory. It was a 100 years before another Roman tried to conquer Britain, and then it was the Emperor Claudius. Claudius was not an impressive figure. He limped when he walked, he drooled when he talked, and, worst of all, he was an ancient historian, author of a history of the Etruscans. Despite the temporary support of the Praetorian Guard, his administration seemed doomed. Then he had a great idea.
One reason to study ancient history is to learn lessons for today. If you, reader, are ever a president or prime minister whose popularity is sinking in the polls, do what Claudius did: invade and conquer a small island. Claudius did not know of the Falklands or Grenada, but he had heard of Britain from the books of his ancestor Julius Caesar. The campaign was brilliantly orchestrated. The king whose name survives in our literature as Shakespeare’s Cymbeline had just died, and his sons were fighting over the succession. The Romans took advantage of the situation to land in Britain and win some skirmishes. Claudius showed up in time to take credit for the major victory and returned to Rome as conquering hero, held a triumph, and named his son Britannicus. He never had to fear lack of popularity again.
Roman Britain was a province, but a wealthy and happy one. Roman villas spread throughout the land and old cities prospered while new ones, such as Londinium, sprang up. The future emperor Constantine, who was to begin to lead the Roman Empire to Christianity, spent much of his youth there.
The Roman Empire, however, eventually fell on hard days. Constantine’s reforms were to lead to a long life for part of the Empire, until 1453 in the East, but some limbs had to be chopped away to save the body. One of those limbs was Britain. In the early fifth century A.D., Roman troops were withdrawn. In a generation German tribes
learned of Britain and began invading. The Latin-speaking Celts fought back, and our stories of King Arthur have their origin in those distant days. Eventually the Germans won and Britain became England, the land of the Germanspeaking Angles and Saxons.
Our ancestors did not know much Latin, just the few words likely to make an impression on beer-swilling, venison-munching barbarians. Of course, they noticed the Roman roads, strata, and our word “street” is a lineal descendent of that impression. (Like many Latin words, strata was picked up by scientists in the 19th century and so survives twice in English. A good parallel is the chivalrous medieval word “feat” and the hard 19th-century term “fact,” both the descendants of the Latin factum.) Of course they noticed the great fortifications. “Wall” is the first half of Latin vallum. They also noticed that the Romans drank wine and ate cheese, and those two English words come straight from Latin vinum and caseus. The latter word has suffered from the changing pronunciation of English, but the w of our wine preserves, after all these centuries, the correct Latin pronunciation of vinum, long after the Romance descendents of Latin turned to pronouncing it with a v. After the eventual conversion of the Germans, more Latin words came into the language from Christianity, including candle, altar, and church.
In 1066 the Angles and Saxons themselves were conquered by a new set of Norsemen, the Normans of France. (Even in those days the French imposed their sense of cultural superiority on lesser breeds without the law.) The conquerors brought in a whole slew of Latin words modified by a transition through Late Latin and French, These were the words of conquerors, and Latin became associated with the rulers and the upper class. So what a peasant works with, “hand,” is a good Germanic word, but “stomach,” what an aristocrat uses to enjoy the results of his work, is a Latin word. Similarly those filthy animals that the Saxons watched for the rulers were “swine,” as still in German, but the delicious food that was made out of them was “pore,” a good Latin word. Latin still suffers from the feeling that it is naturally a language of an oppressive elite, even today, although that was only one period of its life in English.
With the 16th century came the Renaissance and the Reformation, new inventions, new continents, and new ideas. All this newness needed new words to describe it. One alternative was to invent totally new sounds to describe this new world. Writers in English, however, made a very important decision. Instead of trying to weld together new sounds to embrace all the new discoveries of their world, they turned their back on the present and sought in the unified and sophisticated world of Ancient Rome the words to describe what was happening around them.
A few examples. How does one describe the feeling that things are getting better? When the world is a unified whole, where classes and doctrine change not, there is no need for such a concept. In the 16th century, people felt that there had been degeneration and emendment. So one of them, William Shakespeare, picked up a Latin word for travel and used it for things getting better, the word “progress.” In the Middle Ages this word had existed to describe, for instance, the passage of the king from one noble house to another. Shakespeare used it to describe things not just going, but going somewhere. It did not catch on right away, but in the 19th century it came into its own.
Again, how does one describe the feeling that one is getting older but also better? Sir Thomas Elyot, T.S. Eliot’s distant ancestor, wrote a book on education, The Scholemaster, in which he felt this need. He considered using the word “ripe” from the plant world, but some vague linguistic sense told him that older people would not want to be called “ripe.” So he turned to the Latin word for “ripe,” maturus. People who got better as they grew older were “mature,” and the condition was “maturity.” We aging Baby Boomers can now be grateful for the thoughtful Elyot and for hundreds of others in the 16th and 17th centuries who coined thousands of words in English out of Latin and Greek. All these words did not survive, but many did, to enrich our speech and to allow the genius of our language to mature, to progress, in an orderly fashion.
A similar situation existed in the 19th and 20th centuries, although here we are dealing with scientific ideas and discoveries. Again the men of that age turned back to ancient Greece and Rome to describe the locomotive and the aeroplane, sociology and hermeneuties. Most of the Latin and Greek in our dictionaries comes from these men who sought to describe a new world in the languages of an old one and so allow the rest of us to assimilate this newness without the trauma of future shock.
It is still going on. We are all concerned with computers nowadays, and the invention is a fairly new one, but the word comes right out of Latin, computo, to reckon, and the little flashing light that is signaling to me as I write this on my trusty Kay-Pro in an apartment in the old city of Rome, Italy, is called a cursor, another good Latin word, for “runner.”
One reason why our society, unlike many others, has been able to assimilate change and newness without falling apart is that we decided, way back in the Renaissance, to introduce the world we had not yet seen, because we were in the process of inventing it, by means of the sounds and words of an ancient society we knew only from books and our imagination. This means that there is another reason for an ambitious young person to learn Latin. Many believe that the ability to think logically is improved by the exercise of transferring thoughts from one linguistic system to another. One meets minds such as Vergil and Cicero, who still have a thing or two to say to our world. The vocabularies of law, medicine, and the sciences are full of Latin words that help a youngster understand those fields and rise in them.
There is more, however. For there will be inventions and ideas coming out in the next generation that none of us have heard of yet, that no one has thought of If their inventors continue the traditions of our ancestors, they will describe these inventions and discoveries with words taken from Latin. Latin is not only our link to a past rich with adventure and mystery, it is also a ticket to understanding a future which is equally exciting and mysterious. No other field of study can make the same promise, that of rooting us in our past while opening up the future. It is the one secret that no trade rival will ever be able to steal from us, because our creative future is rooted deep in the fertile soil of our richly productive past.